Why and How A Novelist Didn’t Write a Kindle Single
01/12/2011 § 9 Comments
L.A. – based novelist Edan Lepucki just published a thoughtful takedown of electronic self-publishing, at The Millions. An excerpt:
The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don’t mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don’t mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I’m simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it’s naive to believe that a self-published author is “fighting the system” if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they’ve rejected “The Big 6″ for “The Big 1.”
She’s also concerned that she may not be able to buy her own book (which her publisher sells both as a print edition and as a $5.00 ebook).
She’s right to worry. I can’t buy my latest story. I don’t have an eReader, and my 2007 Macbook tells me it needs its OS updated to support the Kindle Reader App.
The people I wrote about don’t have any idea what I said about them, either. This is a first in my career. I’ve always sent copies of books or articles to the people who share their stories with me. To do that will require more creativity now. My latest story is a dispatch from Libya. The characters, who are real people, read in Arabic.
So it was dismaying when my friend Mohamed ElGohary, an Egyptian journalist, informed me a few days ago that the Kindle screen does not yet support Arabic. (Some models can display PDFs in Arabic. They process the words as images, not as text, constraining usability.)
That’s not just a problem of courtesy for me. It’s also a business handicap. A key question implied by direct digital publishing is the fate of international copyright. Copyright used to end at the water’s edge. Selling publishing rights in other languages was a key business for legacy publishers and a source of income — often considerable — for authors.
It’s a technical issue, but how fast Kindle supports different alphabets could influence how I distribute long-form dispatches in the future. If hardware support defines this kind of journalism’s expansion more than market support does, an international reporter will be in a bind.
That bind is different for a novelist like Edan Lepucky than it is for a reporter like me. I know that the Arab Spring is an important story. I know too that Arabic speakers are one of the fastest-growing user communities on the internet, and that Arabic readers are enthusiastic customers for electronic devices. And I know, most importantly, that my story takes place in Libya. Social networking is wildly popular in the MENA (“Middle East-North Africa”) region. And Arabic has one of the world’s richest literary traditions. People in the Middle East will absolutely be online buying, talking about, and debating literature, and the biggest story of the year happened in their backyard (and in Libya, the front yard). I suspect I could find readers in the MENA region to justify the $1000 or so it would cost me to translate my story into Arabic, that part of the world’s lingua franca.
The non-business issue is tied to the business issue. I can’t sell to the people whose lives I’m writing about; for a journalist, this brings up questions of what kind of conversation I’m hoping to provoke. I’m not, in theory, an anthropologist, doing my fieldwork and then carrying that back to another land to discuss with my own people. I’m seeking to occupy a lacuna in an emerging global narrative. The Shores of Tripoli is the result of a baton pass, from the journalists who wrote other, previous stories about the Arab Spring. Then I get my turn. Then I pass to, say, Mohamed ElGohari. And then he passes to the next, who may well be Japanese or Spanish. That is how we understand current events today, I suspect. In aggregate.
But the hardware has to support that narrative chain, or it breaks, and can be pretty taxing to repair. And the Arab world is a huge link this year.
So while I’m still confident I did the right thing bringing The Shores of Tripoli to Amazon and not a traditional magazine, Lepucky’s comments were provocative. Paper reliably accepts ink in whatever shapes one prefers.